|The Poet Ferdowsi Tusi|
The Shahnameh, Book of Kings, is an epic composed by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasim Mansur (later known as Ferdowsi Tusi), and completed around 1010 CE.
[Ferdowsi means 'from paradise', and is derived from the name Ferdous (cf. Avestan pairi-daeza, later para-diz then par-des or par-dos, arabized to fer-dos). Tusi means 'from Tus'. In the poet's case, the name Ferdowsi Tusi became a name and a title: The Tusi Poet from Paradise.]
The epic chronicles the legends and histories of Iranian (Aryan) kings from primordial times to the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century CE, in three successive stages: the mythical, the heroic or legendary, and the historic.
|Shah Ismail II manuscript c 1577 CE|
Artist: Ali Asghar
Khusraw Parviz and Bahram Chubin in combat
Ferdowsi began the composition of the Shahnameh's approximately 100,000 lines as 50,000* couplets /distiches (bayts) each consisting of two hemistichs (misra), 62 stories and 990 chapters, a work several times the length of Homer's Iliad, in 977 CE, when eastern Iran was under Samanid rule. The Samanids had Tajik-Aryan affiliation and were sympathetic to preserving Aryan heritage.
[*Note: the number of couplets composed by Ferdowsi for the Shahnameh is stated as 60,000 in a number of sources. This is incorrect as some manuscripts have added verses.]
It took Ferdowsi thirty three years to complete his epic, by which time the rule of eastern Iran had passed to the Turkoman Ghaznavids (who based themselves in the north-eastern province of Khorasan with Ghazni as their capital).
The Shahnameh was written in classical Persian when the language was emerging from its Middle Persian Pahlavi roots, and at a time when Arabic was the favoured language of literature. As such, Ferdowsi is seen as a national Iranian hero who re-ignited pride in Iranian culture and literature, and who established the Persian language as a language of beauty and sophistication. Ferdowsi wrote: "the Persian language is revived by this work."
The Poet Ferdowsi (c. 935 to 941 - 1020 to 1026 CE)
|Facade to Ferdowsi's Mausoleum in Tus|
The earliest and perhaps most reliable account of Ferdowsi's life comes from Nezami-ye Aruzi, a 12th-century poet who visited Tus in 1116 or 1117 to collect information about Ferdowsi's life. According to Nezami-ye Aruzi, Ferdowsi Tusi was born into a family of landowners near the village of Tus in the Khorasan province of north-eastern Iran. Ferdowsi and his family were called Dehqan, also spelt Dehgan or Dehgān. Dehqan /Dehgan is now thought to mean landed, village settlers, urban and even farmer. However, Dehgan is also a name for the Parsiban, a group of Khorasani with Tajik roots (for further information see the section of Parsiban / Farsiwan in our page on Haroyu, Aria and Herat).
Ferdowsi married at the age of 28 and eight years after his marriage - in order to provide a dowry for his daughter - Ferdowsi started writing the Shahnameh, a project on which he spent some thirty three years of his life.
While Ferdowsi was composing the Shahnameh, Khorasan came under the rule of Sultan Mahmoud, a Turkoman Sunni Muslim and consolidator of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Ferdowsi sought the patronage of the sultan and wrote verses in his praise. The sultan, on the advice from his ministers, gave Ferdowsi an amount far smaller than Ferdowsi had requested and one that Ferdowsi considered insulting. He had a falling out with the sultan and fled to Mazandaran seeking the protection and patronage of the court of the Sepahbad Shahreyar, who, it is said, had lineage from rulers during the Zoroastrian-Sassanian era. In Mazandaran, Ferdowsi wrote a hundred satirical verses about Sultan Mahmoud, verses purchased by his new patron and then expunged from the Shahnameh's manuscript (to keep the peace perhaps). Nevertheless, the verses survived. An example:
Long years this Shahnameh I toiled to complete,
That the King might award me some recompense meet,
But naught save a heart wrung with grief and despair
Did I get from those promises empty as air!
Had the sire of the King been some Prince of renown,
My forehead would surely have been graced by a crown!
Were his mother a lady of high pedigree,
In silver and gold I'd have stood to the knee!
But, being by birth not a prince but a boor,
The praise of the noble he could not endure!
Ferdowsi returned to Tus to spend the closing years of his life forlorn. Notwithstanding the lack of royal patronage, he died proud and confident his work would make him immortal.
Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh in Persian at a time when modern Persian was emerging from middle Persian Pahlavi admixed with a number of Arabic words. In his writing, Ferdowsi used authentic Persian while minimizing the use of Arabic words. In doing so, he established classical Persian as the language of great beauty and sophistication, a language that would supplant Arabic as the language of court literature in all Islamic regimes in the Indo-Iranian region.
If the Shahnameh transliterations this author possesses are correct, Ferdowsi even used the term Parsi and not Farsi to name the Persian language, Farsi being the Arabic version of Parsi.
Writing & Books
A thousand years ago during Ferdowsi’s lifetime, books were written and reproduced by hand, making book production labour-intensive and expensive. Adding illustrations increased the expense. A simple basic manuscript copy could cost as much as a horse – often an entire stable and sometimes the farm. Books therefore were not written for public consumption. Ferdowsi sought the patronage of the then rulers of Iran. The famed amount that Ferdowsi expected to receive for his Shahnameh – as both author and scribe – was a gold piece for every verse.
The public for their part got to hear verses and legends in chaikhanas or teahouses and at other gatherings frequented by travelling bards and storytellers – the famed naqqal. A few erudite individuals would also recite the verses in private gatherings eliciting the approving bah-bah. The Shahnameh was and is also read aloud in the gymnasiums of the Mithraeum-like zurkhanes – where pahlavans , the strong-men of Iran, train with their maces and clubs. During their meditative exercises that have spiritual overtones, a musician plays a drum while reciting Shahnameh verses that recount the heroic deeds of Rustam and other champions of Iran. The epic itself sits in a place of special reverence within the zurkhane.
[*Note: The name pahlavan is linked to Pahlavi, the Middle Persian writing system used in many Zoroastrian texts and said be native to Parthava (Parthia), the region that once included Ferdowsi’s birthplace of Khorasan. Pahlavi came to be known as Parsik, the language of Pars (later Parsi, then Farsi – Persian written with an Arabic script).]
Khvatay-Namak / Khodai-Nama
In the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi credits a paladin (see page 1 of the translations), who 'ransacked the earth' to keep alive the information gleaned from Zoroastrian priests (arch-magi or mobeds) and the 'epic cycle (they) spread broadcast' by memorizing and telling 'their legendary store'.
Ferdowsi's biographer Nezami-ye Aruzi tells us that Ferdowsi based his work on the Middle Persian Pahlavi work, the Khvatay-Namak (also written Xwadāy Nāmag or Khodai-Nama), a history of the kings of Persia complied under orders of Sassanian king Khosrow (Khusrau) I (531-579 CE). Work on the Khvatay-Namak is said to have continued into the reign of the last Zoroastrian-Sassanian monarch of Iran, Yazdegird III (633-649 CE), when former editions were added to by the Dihkan Daneshvar assisted by several learned mobeds.
The Khvatay-namak was based on information gathered from Zoroastrian priests and the legendary accounts in the Avesta memorized by the priests. The Khvatay-namak could be the work to which Ferdowsi refers when he talks about the paladin who gathered the epic cycles memorized by Zoroastrian priests (archmages, mobeds). While the Khvatay-namak was started during the reign of Khosrow (Khusrau) I, it is reputed to have been updated to include the stories of kings up to the fall of the Sassanian dynasty. There are no known copies of the Khvatay-namak in existence. In his prologue, Ferdowsi stated he needed to move quickly so that he could implement his mission to keep past legends and histories alive - before their imminent destruction.
A possible predecessor to the Khvatay-Namak could be the Chihrdad, one of the destroyed books of the Avesta (known to us because of its listing and description in the Middle Persian Zoroastrian text, the Dinkard 8.13). The text was said to have been a history of humankind from the beginning down to the revelation of Zarathushtra.
Achaemenian Era Book of Kings - Basilikai Diphterai
According to Diodorus (Library of History, Book II. 32, 4), Greek author Ctesias (5th century BCE) who wrote a history of Persia called Persica, consulted a Persian book he called Basilikai Diphterai (spelt by a few as Difterai) meaning 'Royal Records / Parchments' which can be taken to mean a book of kings since its contents were stated to have been royal stories from the past. Ctesias, was a Greek physician in the service of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE). Ctesias' books are now lost and are known to us through other Classical Greek authors: Photius, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus - whose second book is mainly from Ctesias. Diodorus writes, "Now Ctesias says that from the Basilikai Diphterai, in which the Persians in accordance with a certain law of theirs kept an account of their ancient affairs, he carefully investigated the facts about each king, and when he had composed his history he published it to the Greeks."
If this account of Diodorus is correct, then it appears that there was a written tradition of a Persian/Iranian book of Kings from at least the 5th century BCE and probably much earlier - especially since it was part of an ongoing and ancient tradition.
Abu Mansur Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Daqiqi Balkhi (935 or 942 - 980 CE) was a poet at the Tajik Samanid court in Eastern Iranian lands. The name Balkhi means from Balkh, a central Asian nation that spanned today's Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Daqiqi (also Dakiki) wrote about a thousand verses on Zoroastrian history and beliefs before he was murdered by his servant. While outwardly a Muslim, Daqiqi was considered a Zoroastrian sympathizer if not a closet Zoroastrian, a dangerous affiliation in those fanatical times. A verse of Daqiqi reads:
Daqiqi chaar kheslat bar-gozida ast
Ba giti dar, ze khoobi-ha wo zeshti
Lab-e bijada rang o nala-e chang
May-e chun zang o kesh-e Zardushti
Of all that's good or evil in the world,
Four things suffice to meet Daqiqi's needs.
Ruby-coloured lips, the harp's lament,
Blood-red wine and Zoroaster's creed.
(translation: Iraj Bashiri)
Daqiqi put the ancient Airanian legends to verse and wrote a thousand and eight verses before he was tragically murdered. These thousand lines are similar in scope and subject matter to the Middle Persian Ayadgar i Zareran, though Daqiqi's source is thought to be the Khvatay Namak (Xwadāy-nāmag). Significantly, Daqiqi had started his Shahnameh, not with the dawn of history, but with the Kayanian King Gushtasp's (Vishtasp's) patronage of Zarathushtra's religion.
Ferdowsi sought out and inserted Daqiqi-e Balkhi's one thousand and eight verses, beginning with the rule of King Gushtasp (Vishtasp), Gushtasp's acceptance of Zarathushtra's message, and ending with Arjasp's attack on Airan after Gushtasp imprisons his son Esfandiar. In a preface to the borrowed verses, Ferdowsi writes that in a dream, Daqiqi exhorted Ferdowsi to use these verses and in addition, to complete the tragic poet's unfinished mission to chronicle Zoroastrian and Aryan heritage.
Ferdowsi undertook his venture at a time when every effort was being made by some zealots to extinguish all memory of Zoroastrian and Aryan tradition. However, Ferdowsi was more circumspect in his approach and not as blatantly pro-Zoroastrian as Daqiqi. Some authors state that Daqiqi's most controversial verses were not included in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh and have been lost.
Experts tell us that while Ferdowsi pursued the exploits of some of the leading characters of Sistan in detail, he also excluded other well known epics. Subsequent poets put these epics to verse in a fashion similar to the Shahnameh’s verses – epics which some scribes inserted into their version of the Shahnameh. The substantial epics include legends of heroes related to Rustam and Sohrab* – legends such as the Barzunama (or Susannama) and the Garshaspnama**. They are not short. Versions of the Barzunama can vary between 30,000 and 60,000 couplets, and that’s about as long as the Shahnameh itself. The Garshaspnama is about 9,000 couplets long. The latter composition is credited to a Khurasani compatriot of Ferdowsi's – Asadi Tusi, who wrote the Garshaspnama about half a century after the Shahnameh.
*The lineage of the Siestan heroes was: Garshasp, Nariman, Sam, Zal, Rustam, Sohrab and Barzu.
**Garshaspnama is also spelt Garshaspnamah / Garshasp Nama / Garshasp Namah / Garshaspnameh / Garshasp Nameh.]
Ferdowsi's Original Work Lost
A manuscript of Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh, written in the poet’s own hand is not known to exist. We must, however, remain ever hopeful that this priceless treasure may have survived destruction – waiting to be discovered as have several old Shahnameh manuscript copies during the past hundred years. The earliest surviving copies of his work that have survived were written some two hundred years after the death of the poet around 1020 CE.
Differences in Shahnameh Copies
Scribes who made copies of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh did not make entirely faithful copies of the poet's original work. They resorted to editing the content and replaced the older words with those that were current. In addition, they were prone to errors and we find frequent notes in the margins by the scribes themselves and by others, correcting those errors.
The ad hoc editing by subsequent scribes as well as errors has resulted in every existing manuscript copy being different in content and length - lengths from less than 50,000 to around 60,000 verses. There has consequently been considerable debate among 'experts' as to which version is authentic or authoritative.
Reconstruction of an Authoritative Shahnameh
Since the many manuscripts of the Shahnameh vary and since scribes were prone to error and editing while copying, there has been a desire to reconstruct what Ferdowsi's original manuscript would have looked like and reconstruction projects have been undertaken.
One of the first attempts was Mohl’s edition in 7 volumes (Paris, 1838-78) based on 35 manuscripts. Mohl’s edition and French translation were used to author the only complete Shahnameh’s English translation in verse – that by A.G. and E. Warner, (6-10 vols. London, 1905-25).
A ten-volume reconstructed edition was later published in Tehran (1934-35).
Next, a nine-volume edition was published in Moscow by Y. E. Bertel and others (1966-71). The Moscow edition was based, among others, on the British Museum manuscript dated 1276 and a manuscript in Leningrad dated 1333 – both of which were among those considered authoritative by the experts at that time.
In 1987, Dr. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh published the first volume of his reconstructed text. Volumes 2 to 5 have subsequently been published (1988-97). Dr. Khaleghi-Motlagh selected fifteen manuscripts on which to base his edition and these manuscripts included the British Museum and Leningrad MSS. According to a review by Dick Davis, Khaleghi-Motlagh now considers the Leningrad manuscript copy to be ghayr-e asli meaning secondary and inauthentic.
- Warner, Arthur and Edmond Warner, The Shahnama of Firdausi, 9 vols. (London: Keegan Paul, 1905-1925). Complete English verse translation. Primary translation used on this web-site.
- Zimmern, Helen (1846-1934), The Epic of Kings - Hero Tales of Ancient Persia (1883). Secondary translation used on this web-site.
- Atkinson, James, Persian Literature, Comprising The Shah Nameh, The Rubaiyat, The Divan, and The Gulistan (1832). Secondary translation used on this web-site.
- Davis, Dick, Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi
- Vol. 1, The Lion and the Throne, (Mage Publishers, 1998)
- Vol. 2, Fathers and Sons, (Mage Publishers, 1998)
- Vol. 3, Sunset of Empire, (Mage Publishers, 2003)
- The Legend of Seyavash, (Penguin, 2001, Mage Publishers 2004) (abridged)
Written in verse and prose, Davis’ work excludes the section on Vishtasp and Zarathushtra and is generally of little interest or value from a Zoroastrian heritage perspective.
- Levy, Reuben. The Epic of the Kings: Shah-Nama, the National Epic of Persia, (University of Chicago Press, 1967 & Mazda Publications, 1996) (abridged prose version of the epic's second half).
- B.W. Robinson, The Persian Book of Kings. An epitome of the Shahnama of Firdawsi (London and New York, 2002) (a prose summary, with illustrations).
Spelling of the Names
There are various spellings for the name of the poet, his epic and the names of its characters. These spelling differences arise from the transliteration of the Persian alphabet to English and other European languages or phonetic variations. The names of the characters differ considerably depending on whether ancient or modern forms of the names are used. The number of Google search frequency results on the date of writing are as follows:
Ferdowsi - 221,000 (used here), Firdawsi- 130,000, Firdausi - 106,000, Firdousi - 41,200, Firdusi - 38,700, Firdowsi - 6,230, Ferdausi - 5,420, Ferdawsi - 2,020.
Shahnameh - 221,000 (used here), Shahnama - 103,000, "shah nameh" - 28,800, shahname - 25,600, "shah nama" - 9,650, shahnama - 7,860, "shah name" - 5,500, shanameh - 1,980, shaname - 1,860.
» Shahnameh text in Persian